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An article in the New York Times covers a surprising fact unearthed in a class-action lawsuit against pharmaceutical company Wyeth:  they hired a PR company to write articles supporting their drugs, tacked on doctors' names as authors, and submitted them to journals:

The ghostwritten papers were typically review articles, in which an author weighs a large body of medical research and offers a bottom-line judgment about how to treat a particular ailment. The articles appeared in 18 medical journals, including The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and The International Journal of Cardiology.

The articles did not disclose Wyeth’s role in initiating and paying for the work. Elsevier, the publisher of some of the journals, said it was disturbed by the allegations of ghostwriting and would investigate.


The chosen authors were doctors, picked for their credibility and solicited to put their names on mostly completed work.  One example in the article shows how brazen the process is:  the PR company, DesignWrite, handed a draft of an article to a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology.  She sent back an email with one correction.  Later, the article appeared with the professor's name as the primary author.  And the ghost-writers?

The acknowledgments thanked several medical writers for their "editorial assistance," not disclosing that those writers worked for DesignWrite, which charged Wyeth $25,000 to generate the article.

Wyeth argues that this sort of "editorial assistance" is common in the field.  Maybe, but it certainly isn't common in academia.  This is as surprising to an academic like me as it is to laypeople---and in many fields it would be considered blatant academic misconduct.

Different academic disciplines have widely different standards of publication.  Many fields don't have the concept of a review article, which leads to some confusion when a biologist says "I can't go out this weekend, I'm writing a review."  We differ on the relative importance of journal articles versus conference papers, and on the free online access of papers versus pay access.  In some fields, like mathematics, it is common for preprints to be widely disseminated.  In some fields, peer review is weaker.
But one of the biggest differences is that most of academia is not adversarial.  We don't have a bunch of outsiders with an interest in leaning the academic consensus a certain way, or who will use a bag of tricks to promote or suppress papers.  It does happen now and then in my field, information security:  I was once on a paper that was held from publication under threat of a lawsuit.  We broke a security system that was designed and marketed by the threatening party.  When that happened, our university was completely unprepared, because we simply aren't used to that kind of industry kibitzing.  My brush with the courts made me ever grateful that I'm not in a field where laypeople try to distort your work, like evolutionary biology, or stem-cell research, or pretty much any medical research involving commercial therapies.
For this reason, it's pretty obvious to most academics that this sort of practice is unethical.  Indeed, it's something we never encounter.  Nobody's going to write a paper for you, nobody's going to game the system by forging a consensus to help their company.  If it is a common practice in medicine, it's still shocking to the rest of us.

And to the rest of us, the fix is pretty obvious:  a journal must mandate that anyone who contributes text or data to a paper be listed as an author.  Customarily the author is listed with affiliation, and if the authors' work is supported by external support that is explicitly stated (people who fund research usually want acknowledgement, so they can brag that their funding has advanced the state of the art.)

Then when the authors sign the copyright transfer form, it has a clause that says, "to the best of my knowledge, the authors are the sole contributors of written text and new research results in this paper, and their funding to perform this writing and research has been explicitly acknowledged."  If such a simple rule cannot be enforced right away, then it only shows a severe need for reform.

Originally posted to Caj on Wed Aug 05, 2009 at 09:23 AM PDT.

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